Child Life Heroes: "My Favorite Person In The Hospital"

Twenty years ago, the Child Life program had just launched at Providence Children’s Hospital (PCH) in El Paso, TX, but the current Child Life Specialist was about to leave the hospital for another position. As he was wrapping up his time at PCH, he asked a volunteer at the hospital named Peggy Schuster if she’d be interested in working as a Child Life Specialist. Peggy thought about it and said “OK, I’ll try it.” Little did she know how much she’d grow to love her new line of work.


Several years after starting to work in Child Life, Peggy met Ana Aburto and thought she might also be a good fit for Child Life. Peggy invited Ana to do some research about the Child Life profession, and a short time later Ana joined her at PCH on the Child Life team. Sixteen years later, Ana and Peggy are still a dynamic Child Life duo helping patients and their families at PCH—a learning process always.

I was able to talk with Peggy and Ana recently about some of their experiences in Child Life, from their favorite parts of working as a Child Life Specialist to some of the most important aspects of their role. They also shared some of their remarkable stories from working with patients in the last year.

From left: Ana Aburto, Michelle Carrillo, Peggy Schuster

From left: Ana Aburto, Michelle Carrillo, Peggy Schuster

Ana told me that one thing she loves about Child Life is how there are new challenges every day. “The most exciting part of my job is finding new ways to help patients,” she tells me. “I come from an educational background, and at times it becomes a teaching challenge for me; how can I use my creativity and the resources that I have to help these kids reduce their anxiety?”

One of Peggy’s favorite aspects of her role is her responsibility to focus on the patient and advocate for their emotional needs, which can sometimes get lost in the busyness of the hospital. “Often, medical staff end up talking more to the parents than the child. Patients have told us ‘I feel invisible.’”

Child Life Specialists have to stay closely attuned to what their patients are thinking and feeling. Their powers of perception are crucial, and can help turn a potentially scary and traumatic procedure into a smooth procedure with no tears. When they recognize what a patient is experiencing, they can come up with solutions to help the patient better cope with the treatment they’re going through.

Peggy had a recent situation at PCH that required her to cut through the noise of a chaotic situation to bring peace to a young patient. “We were working with a little 4 year old girl and we couldn’t get her to sit still for a procedure. She was screaming and crying,” says Peggy. The doctor and the nurses were trying to calm the girl down, but everyone was talking at the same time and Peggy could see that it was overwhelming for her.

“I asked them if I could try something—so they all moved back and I took out the SpellBound cards and was talking to her,” Peggy tells me. “She started interacting with the cards and she calmed down.” Peggy told the girl that she needed the procedure, but told her to keep focusing on the cards. Using the SpellBound cards along with relaxation techniques, the patient stayed calm and the doctor was able to finish the procedure. “Everyone was surprised at the cards and their effect, and looking at me like ‘Gosh, what did you pull out of your pocket… a magic wand?’”

When that girl was leaving the procedure room, she looked up at Peggy and told her mom, “That’s my favorite person in the hospital.”

When I ask Ana about the first time she used SpellBound with a patient, she immediately jumps into the story. “It was during an IV start with a 3 year old girl that had a lot of anxiety,” says Ana. “The anxiety was being fed to her through the parent that was with her; they were more anxious than she was.” When it came time to put in the IV, Ana pulled out the mouse Journey Card for the patient to use.

“What she did surprised me,” Ana tells me, “because she used it to communicate to the nurses that she was feeling something.” Every time the girl felt something during the procedure, she’d touch the mouse to make it squeak. Ana, using her Child Life perception powers, noticed her doing this and asked, “Are you letting the nurse know that you’re hurting?” The patient said, "Yes."

Using the feedback from the patient, the nurses were able to get the IV started after a few minutes. When they were done, the little girl left the procedure room to return to her family, who was waiting outside for her. “She was excited; she wanted to show them how she had managed to get through the procedure using the card,” says Ana.

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"I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to work on every child.’ It was an eye-opening experience for me."

Given that it was her first time using SpellBound, Ana was surprised at how easy it was to use and how well it worked. “I’m not a very technical person. I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to work on every child.’ It was an eye-opening experience for me,” she tells me. And she points out that  all the elements had to work together to make it a successful procedure. “It was a combination of the SpellBound technology, the observing, and the teamwork.”

As Peggy and Ana have practiced as Child Life Specialists over the years, some of the methods and tools have changed; when they started, there were no iPads, and certainly no augmented reality cards for distraction. But the core of their role is still the same as it ever was. They’re still observing what patients are experiencing, advocating for them, creatively finding ways to meet their emotional needs, and helping them cope with the fear, uncertainty, and pain of treatment. Today, they just have some new tools to assist them.

Kids go through a lot when they’re getting medical treatment at the hospital. And Child Life Specialists like Peggy and Ana are the heroes that help make it a little better.

David NesbittComment